A Hermit’s Guide to MMOs: Which MMOs Offer the Best Single-player Experience?

Do you love exploring fantastical video game worlds, but hate interacting with strangers?

Do you spend enough time pretending to like stupid people at work, and don’t want to keep doing it whilst you’re gaming?

Do you just want to quietly roleplay in peace, without having angry neckbeards telling you to “get gud” until they spray mountain dew from their nostrils?

My friend, you are not alone.

MMOs offer some of the most captivating gaming experiences around. They are unmatched in their scale and their scope, with a breadth to their worlds and a depth to their lore that is only achievable through years, sometimes decades, of development in updates, expansions and DLC. To new players, MMOs offer a sense of boundless adventure, and seemingly unlimited opportunities to quest, explore and role-play.

The only problem is that the MMO community – the thing that puts the MM into MMO – is both its greatest asset and its greatest weakness. Notorious for being cliquey, elitist and downright rude, the MMO community seems full of people who delight in posturing, trolling, griefing, bullying, tea-bagging and dick-measuring all over the forums and world chats every hour God sends, whilst innocent bystanders like us are just trying to enjoy the game in privacy.

You know the feeling.

But fear not, anti-social gamers – there is a place for you in the world of MMOs. Luckily for us, interaction with other players is entirely optional, and it is absolutely possible to have hours of fun playing MMOs without participating in the multiplayer facet of these games at all. I know this, because I have spent the last six years casually perusing my way through a selection of popular MMOs, in an effort to prove that MMOs still have a lot to offer the socially-awkward, socially-anxious and socially-disinclined.

How do you take the MM out of MMO? Which MMO offers the best single-player experience to the anti-social gamer?

To answer that question, I will be judging four popular MMOs – World of Warcraft, Star Wars the Old Republic, Lord of the Rings Online and the Elder Scrolls Online – against five key criteria that I feel make or break an MMO’s single player experience. They are:

  • How immersive and/or expansive is the world? How engaging is the lore?
  • What is the levelling experience like?
  • How fun are the quests?
  • Do they feature any traditional RPG qualities/mechanics?
  • How easy is it to access higher-level content whilst playing solo?

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The World of Warcraft (WOW)

2021 might be an excellent time to enter the World of Warcraft – it’s newest expansion, Shadowlands, has just been released.

There can be no talk of MMOs without mentioning the big daddy of them all, World of Warcraft. Initially released in 2004, it is a continuation of the real-time strategy Warcraft games, the first of which was released in 1994, meaning the franchise as a whole is much older. It is the most popular and highest grossing MMO of all time, with around ten million players worldwide. Set mostly in the world of Azeroth, the main premise of the franchise revolves around two factions – the Alliance and the Horde – who have to protect the world of Azeroth from the forces of darkness, whilst simultaneously being in a constant state of war with each other.

The World and the Lore — 10/10

With 8 expansions, 3 real-time strategy games and 31 novel’s worth of content to sift through, World of Warcraft is a ‘lore-whore’s’ wet dream. Azeroth is probably the most expansive and immersive world on the market, offering the greatest number of zones to explore and factions to join. From the bottom of the sea, to farthest corners of space, to the afterlife itself – nowhere is safe from the pillaging paws of Azeroth’s adventurers.

Aside from Azeroth’s sheer scale, what’s most impressive is that WOW’s lore is all original, in that it is not inspired by famous books, TV or film series’. This is a large part of what makes Azeroth feel like such a unique place, and what makes it so endlessly fascinating to experience single-player.

The Levelling Experience — 7/10

Though WOW always offered players a great deal of freedom in deciding which zones they want to level through and in what order, for the longest time, the game wasn’t completely open-world in that the level-scaling only applied to areas belonging to the same expansions. That all changed with the release of WOW’s latest expansion, Shadowlands, which now allows new players to level from 1 to 60 in any of the last 7 expansions in whichever order they choose. This means you have ultimate control over your levelling experience, which is ideal for role-playing and for keeping the levelling experience fresh. No more grinding through boring zones or expansions – definitely a huge win for single-players.

The Quests —4/10

Unfortunately, though WOW is boundary-breaking in some areas, the quest themselves are lacklustre for most part. WOW tends to rely too heavily on classic MMO quest cliche’s like “Kill or collect X number of X” or “Bring X item to X person” – for the most part, you’ll be fetch-questing your way to level 60, so be warned.

RPG Mechanics — 6.5/10

I think it’s fair to say that Blizzard, the developers of WOW, put far more emphasis on the MMO than they do on the RPG. There’s no voice-acting, no romance, no player housing, no multiple endings – it’s a classic MMORPG, there’s no ifs or buts about it, it’s just you and the game, grinding enemies, mashing buttons and levelling through the content together. Later expansions do feature limited voice acting, and an attempt at something approaching player housing was made in Warlords of Draenor with the garrison system… but really, it’s clear that when it comes to facilitating roleplay, it’s the players’ responsibility to use their imagination and weave their own stories.

Credit where credit is due – some of WOW’s later expansions have included some light RPG mechanics, such as Legion’s class-specific order hall quest arcs, or Shadowlands’ “Covenant” system, where you can join one of four unique factions.

Solo-able Content — 4/10

Unfortunately, the majority of the most important lore events in the Warcraft universe happen at the end of raids and dungeons, which means it is impossible to experience WOW’s story progress in real-time, whilst it is “current content”, if you’re a single-player. You can only experience lore events around 1 or 2 expansions in delay, when they become low-levelled enough that you can complete the dungeons or raids on your own. This really blows for single-players – watching important lore moments play out through a YouTube video is NOT the same as experiencing it for yourself.

If you are really desperate to play through “current content,” you could use WOW’s group finder tool (called Looking for Raid, or LFR) which randomly groups players together without the need to formally join a guild or approach other players out in the world. LFR dungeons and raids are slightly easier than normal dungeons and raids as well, which might be a relief if you suffer from performance-anxiety as I do.

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The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)

I don’t think anyone was surprised when the most famous fantasy franchise of all time ventured into the world of MMOs in 2007. Middle Earth was ripe for plundering, with it’s an expansive world, well-established lore, and pre-built fanbase. Interestingly, the events you play through in LOTRO happen simultaneously and in conjunction with the events of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Being able to interact with the franchise’s most famous characters and events is a major selling point for old-school fantasy fanatics.

The World and the Lore —6/10

LOTRO brings the world of Middle Earth to life in a way that, I feel, even the films failed to match. Being able to walk the same roads that Frodo and Samwise walked, from the Shire to Rivendell to the Mines of Moria; being able to climb Weathertop, where Frodo was stabbed by the Morgul blade; passing through the Misty Mountains as Bilbo’s company did; having a drink at the Prancing Pony.

I never realised just how complex and massive the Lord of the Rings universe was until I started adventuring through it – or quite how far Frodo and Sam would have travelled to reach the fires of Mount Doom! I have over 100 hours invested in this game and I’ve never even seen the Black Gate.

The Levelling Experience — 3/10

As time has gone on, most MMOs have adopted some form of level scaling, but LOTRO seems to be having trouble catching up – at the time of writing  it is one of the only surviving MMOs to feature absolutely no dynamic scaling at all. Quest levels, quest rewards, enemy levels and zone levels remain fixed. This is a huge problem for single-players, as it means that your adventure is essentially predetermined. You are forced to quest through certain zones in a certain order as if you’re being shunted through the game on a conveyor belt.

I can’t decide what’s worse: having to arbitrarily leave an area before you’ve completed all the quests because you’ve out levelled it, or having to grind your way through an area you have no interest in because the areas you are interested in are too high level for you.

It’s one of LOTRO’s greatest weaknesses…

…followed closely by the fact that LOTRO is the only MMO on this list that requires it’s players – even paying subscribers – to buy each expansion pack individually instead of awarding subscribers access to all but the most recent expansions, which is pretty much the industry standard. This makes LOTRO far and away the most expensive MMO to play if you’re wanting to explore the entirety of Middle Earth and level your character up to the max.

The Quests — 4/10

As with WOW, LOTRO offers very little in the way of unique or interesting quest structures. “Kill 20 wolves”, “Kill Chief Orc” or “Collect David’s shield” is about as complex as you can expect generic quests to get and you’ll spend a lot of time grinding through them. Quest objectives are relayed to the player via long and rambling blocks of text on a scroll, so I really hope you like reading. The pleasure of exploring the far reaches of Middle Earth somewhat makes up for the predictable and repetitive quests, but only somewhat.

RPG Mechanics–4/10

Similarly to WOW, LOTRO adopted a classic MMORPG style; and like WOW, this means that LOTRO-players have to rely on their own imaginations to bring their characters to life. Somehow, it manages to be even more stripped-back than WOW (if such a thing is possible) without so much as a covenant, order hall, guild or brotherhood in sight. Thankfully though, Middle Earth’s lore and overall aesthetic is so well established that finding a place for your character to slot into the world shouldn’t be too difficult.

Solo-able Content–3/10

Whereas in WOW, only the most important lore events in the game are locked behind raids and dungeons, in LOTRO, even area quest-arcs will probably end at the doors of an instance (LOTRO’s equivalent of a dungeon).

Unfortunately, this means that, if you’re committed to enjoying the game as a  single-player, quite considerable swathes of quest arcs, stories and lore will be inaccessible to you.

In this way, the LOTRO experience is definitely more about the journey than the destination, with most of your enjoyment coming from exploring the world and working through the quests… but being unable to finish quest arcs, right when you reach the last hurdle, can leave a lot of players feeling unsatisfied – completionists, consider yourselves warned.

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Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

Designed to follow on from the hugely successful RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, SWTOR is pretty much the only MMO to break away from the world of high-fantasy into the world of sci-fi. That alone makes SWTOR stand out in a market totally saturated with swords and sorcery – who needs all that when you’ve got lightsabers, blasters and the power of the Force? Unfortunately, SWTOR is set almost 4,000 years before the events of the Star Wars films, so you won’t be shaking hands with Hans Solo or giving Vader the finger – but you will be delving deeper into the Star Wars universe than the films would allow you to go.

The World and the Lore —6/10

As far as the wider Star Wars universe goes, it has already been established that SWTOR is NOT canon unlike most other Star Wars videogames. This is both a blessing and a curse: a blessing because it means that the SWTOR’s developers, BioWare, had a lot more flexibility in the characters, locations and features they could include in the game, and a curse in that hard-core Star Wars fans might find the game’s happy-go-lucky approach to making up lore on the fly to be a little jarring (I’m looking at you Darth Revan).

When it comes to the game world itself, SWTOR’s base game world is on the small side in comparison to other MMOs on this list, with only 13 planets (excluding the starter planets) to take you from level 1 to 50, though these planets are all very unique and pretty great to look at. There is something to be said for quality over quantity after all; each planet does have a unique aesthetic as well as a complete quest-arc of its own you can complete alongside your class quests.

The Levelling Experience — 5/10

SWTOR might be set in the distant future, but there’s nothing futuristic about it’s levelling system.  SWTOR has opted against an open-world approach with dynamic level scaling, opting instead for a linear style, with elements of level scaling. This means that you have to complete the same planets, in the same order, each time you level a character. There is a certain degree of variation – for example, some planets are only available to Republic factions or Empire factions, and your class quests will change with each playthrough – but the area-quests and side-quests remain largely fixed. But again, this is somewhat mitigated by the fact that most quest chains have multiple endings depending on the choices you make, making them slightly more suitable for multiple playthroughs.

SWTOR’s approach to level scaling is unique in that each planet has it’s own maximum and minimum levels. If you are within the maximum and minimum level, then the enemies’ level will scale to match yours. But if you over-level (which is unavoidable if you complete all the quests and heroic missions available to you), then your level will be scaled down to the planet’s maximum and a cap will be placed on all your core stats. This means that a level 50 player will have the stats of a level 35 player if they are questing in a level 30 to 35 area. On the bright side, this does mean that it is impossible to outlevel a questing area so much that the quests become trivial… but it still doesn’t change my opinion that the game would function much better as an MMO if it was fully level-scaled like other popular MMOs. Maybe one day.

The Quests —10/10

When it comes to the quality of its quests, SWTOR’s quests are much more akin to the kind of quests you would expect from modern-day RPGs, as opposed to the limited and inflexible traditional MMORPG style as seen in WOW or LOTRO. This meant that, in this area at least, SWTOR was ahead of its time when it was released in 2011 (you could even say it was lightyears ahead).

SWTOR’s quests are all about choices; class quests, area quests and even side quests almost always offer the player a choice (sometimes multiple choices) in how the quest will turn out. This is fantastic for single-players whose focus is on a strong role-playing experience.

SWTOR’s quests are far more impactful and complex than you’d expect from an MMO – the road to level 50 is paved with moral dilemmas, betrayals, sabotage, lies and sacrifices, instead of being paved with the corpses of 10,000 wild animals you had to slaughter during mindless “Kill X number of Y” quests.

RPG Mechanics–10/10

SWTOR has the strongest RPG mechanics of any MMO on this list by a country mile, and goes further than any MMO I know to provide it’s players with roleplay opportunities. It starts with something as simple as having fully voiced conversations with NPCs complete with dialogue choices; then you realise that your companions will grow friendlier or more hostile towards you depending on your actions and dialogue choices; then you realise that each of your companions has a complete personality that may clash with or correspond to your own, and then you realise that you can flirt with your companions and eventually marry them if you woo them enough. This is just one of many examples of how SWTOR goes above and beyond to engage the player in developing their character.

As I mentioned previously, SWTOR puts a major emphasis on choices. The choices you make and the way you interact with NPCs has tangible benefits beyond simply offering a great roleplay experience. Your choices greatly affect how your character’s journey plays out, deciding who lives, who dies, and who you will ally with.

These choices and dialogue options will also affect the relationships you have with your companions. Remember that the better your relationship with a companion, the greater their stats and the more useful they will be to you in combat, so it’s best to partner up with a companion whose values most closely align with your character’s… otherwise they will spend the entire game frowning disapprovingly and berating you. Unless you’re into that kind of thing.

If it weren’t for other players running around and stealing your kills, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a single-player Star Wars RPG.

Solo-able Content — 8/10

Another feather in SWTOR’s cap is that every quest – class quests, story quests and side quests – are all 100% completable in single-player. Fortunately, heroic quests (quests recommended for a party of around three players) can be soloed as well, if you are competent playing your class, which means even the humblest of hermits can get access to higher quality loot and gear. You can even complete a few of the early-game “flashpoints” – SWTOR’s equivalent of a dungeon meant for a small handful of players – totally single-player as well (though the mid to late game flashpoints, plus any expansion flashpoints, remain off-limits) which is really a turn up for the books. It’s nice to see SWTOR looking out for the little guys instead of confining us to a life of standard-to-low-quality loot.

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The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)

Anybody with a taste for swords ’n scorcery will already be familiar with the world of Tamriel through the “Morrowind”, “Oblivion”, and “Skyrim” entries in Bethesda’s stupidly popular “Elder Scrolls” RPG series. Really it’s a miracle that Bethesda resisted the urge to start milking the MMO cash cow until as late as 2014. ESO is the only MMO on this list to be multi-platform, available on the Playstation 4 and X-box One, with plans for a release on Playstation 5 and X-box Series X at some point in the future. Though the events of ESO aren’t directly linked to any of the previous Elder Scrolls games, it warms the cockles of Elder Scrolls fans everywhere to see Tamriel brought to life in a way that hasn’t been possible since the Elder Scrolls: Arena was released in 1994.

The World and the Lore — 8/10

ESO has blown Tamriel wide open. Around 37 zones to explore, with more and more locations planned for release via DLC.

ESO not only reimagines classic locations such as Skyrim, Cyrodil and Vvardenfell (whilst polishing them up with updated graphics) it also offers players a chance to explore the more elusive corners of Tamriel, such as Elswyr, High Rock, Black Marsh and the Summerset Isle – the likes of which haven’t graced our screens in over 20 years. The best part is that you can access almost any zone in Tamriel as a fresh level 1 player.

The Levelling Experience — 10/10

ESO offers the most flexible levelling experience of any MMO in this list. It is the only MMO to have a game world that is completely 100% level scaled, so you can explore Tamriel in the order and manner that suits you, no questions asked. Anywhere you roam in Tamriel, there will be plenty of interesting and entertaining quests to scintillate your senses and satisfy your lust for loot. In my view, this is the most ideal situation to find yourself in as a new player wanting to take the single-player route.

The Quests — 9/10

The experience of “questing” in ESO is a unique one. The player will encounter quest givers all over Tamriel’s highways and wilderness as they are out exploring, instead of finding them clustered together in settlements (or “quest hubs”) like they are in most other MMOs. Quest objectives are often complex, multi-objective and open-ended, with objectives like “Follow the trail,” “Search for X” and “Find the Y” rather than “Kill X,” “Collect Y” or “Talk to Z.” Quest givers will present their quest to you during a fully-voiced conversation, giving the player vital backstory and an opportunity to sympathise with their plight.

Somehow, Bethesda appears to have found a way to transplant some of the single-player style from the previous Elder Scrolls games, into ESO – that is to say that questing in ESO is a far more deliberate and purposeful affair than one would think possible in an MMO

What ESO lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality, with a distinct Elder Scrolls flair. The presentation and the storytelling make it clear that these quests are far more than just a vehicle to grind levels, but rather they are integral to what the game has to offer its players. Questing and levelling are inextricably linked.

RPG Mechanics–7/10

ESO shines most as an RPG, through its excellent questing experience, but falls somewhat short as a whole. The classes available for the player to choose from are quite limited – there are only 5 available  (6 if you buy the Necromancer class which is sold separately) and although these are very unique classes, they offer little in the way of specialisations and builds as found in other MMOs. There are no “skill trees” per se, only three base skills which can be improved by spending skill points – this means that each and every Templar player in the entire of ESO will use the same three core skills. Comparing that to the specialisation in WOW, where you have at least three entirely unique specialisations of each class with special skills and attributes, leaves ESOs class system falling flat on its face. Feeling like your class is cookie-cutter (even if it’s not) due to a lack of variety stifles player creativity and role-playing.

There are limited opportunities for multiple-choice dialogue options if you learn the “intimidate” and “persuade” skills but situations in which these come in handy are few and far between. Still, these criticisms only really matter in the context of how ESO stands up through multiple playthroughs – none of this really matters if you’re a brand new player as the RPG mechanics are definitely strong enough to carry a player through at least one playthrough.

Solo-able Content — 9/10

Whereas most MMOs will lock bosses behind dungeons and raids, ESO said “bollocks” to all that and decided to scatter bosses that can be accessed any time, by any one, all over Tamriel’s wilderness. The concept of a “world boss” isn’t new but ESOs generous implementation of the idea goes further than I’ve seen in any other MMO – and it’s glorious for single-players. Why? Because it means that, if the feeling takes you, you can show up to the site of a world boss, wait patiently for a few other players to come along and you can take on the boss together.

There’s no need to form a group, or say a single word to anybody, it’s just an all-out free-for-all brawl, then as soon as it’s done everyone disperses into the world, never to interact again. Like passing ships in the night, or the MMO equivalent of a one-night stand.

Of course, higher-level bosses are still locked behind raids and dungeons which do require a formal group for you to access, but it’s great that anti-social gamers like ourselves finally have a chance to profit from the higher-level loot that these world bosses drop, which would previously have been reserved only for players with the gumption to actually interact with others.

Videogames Make Me Happy concludes…

So, when all the cards are laid out on the table, and the five key criteria are considered, which of these popular MMOs offers the best single player experience?

Is it WOW with its expansive world and unique, original lore?

Is it LOTRO with its classic high-fantasy aesthetic?

Is it SWTOR with its strong RPG mechanics and it’s futuristic sci-fi setting?

Or is it ESO with its engaging quests and truly open world?

As usual, I’m going with the cheap, cop-out answer; It really does depend on what you’re looking for. Part of the reason I judged these MMOs on multiple distinct criteria is that I know each player will want different things with their game. As with any kind of art, what you see above is my best attempt at an objective comparison but what ultimately amounts to my own personal taste.

Having said that, if there were no judgements to be made on these MMOS at all then I wouldn’t have bothered writing this article. There are definitely areas where certain games excel above others and certain areas where they fall flat. Based on this, I can still confidently give recommendations.

Here’s a breakdown of the points total.

WOW

31.5

LOTRO

20

SWTOR

39

ESO

42

And here is a handy breakdown of my overall recommendations.

I hope this article will be useful to people who want to get into MMOs, but don’t feel like they would fit in. In our heads, we all have an idea of what kind of person an MMO player will be – insecure, arrogant and difficult to get along with – and whilst those people certainly exist in MMO player-bases, the reality is that MMOs attract a wide variety of players, all of whom play for their own reasons.

A lot of people might feel that being antisocial in an MMO defeats the purpose of playing an MMO in the first place. All I can say is that this would only be true if MMOs had an intrinsic purpose, or a “wrong” way to play them. I believe that MMOs are just like any other game – they are played by people in the way that is most fun for them to play, which is not always the way in which the developer intended for it to be played.

In a way, MMOs are simply an extension of the Internet – an ecosystem within an ecosystem if you will – and the Internet is a space that everyone has to share, and that everyone is free to enjoy as they wish.

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